None of the books on the local history shelf here in the office mention the summer of 1816, but many personal diaries and farm journals held in rare book repositories begin to reveal the story.
The great chill began in 1815, however it didn’t hit with all the devastating effects until the spring and summer of 1816. Snow persisted into June with freezing temperatures. Frost was often experienced even in late August. Here, in what would become Wayne County, almost everyone was still living a subsistence farming life — which meant that no matter what else they did each family also farmed in order to feed their families and animals.
Throughout 1816, each time the seeds were planted and crops began to sprout, a freeze would set in and destroy a good percentage of the crop. The plots were tilled and planted again only to have this pattern repeat itself again and again. Corn and wheat, the principal food crops, seemed particularly susceptible — especially the corn.
Soon everyone was running out of seed that had been set aside the previous year for planting. Everyone was very hungry because the winter had been particularly long and harsh. Many were very tempted to grind and eat some of the seed corn because starvation was setting in and they still faced the specter of the coming winter with no supply to carry through to the next year. Many families — out of pure desperation and not knowing what else to do — made the difficult decision to pack up everything and take their chances by moving west to Ohio and beyond. Staying here just didn’t seem to be an option. It was move on or die a slow painful death here. News traveled slowly, so no one realized that the situation back east in northern New England was even worse and people there were already packing up getting ready to move west looking for improved conditions.
The population of Vermont would drop by nearly 15,000 people in 1816, wiping out over seven years of growth. Among those leaving Vermont and finding their way west to the Palmyra area was the family of Joseph Smith of Mormon fame. Some researchers theorize that these harsh dark conditions led to the writing of both “Frankenstein” and “The Vampyre,” a precursor to “Dracula” in Europe.
So, what was going on? It took almost 100 years before weather patterns and causes started to be studied. Some clues did emerge much earlier. When the volcano Krakatoa in the island chain of Indonesia exploded in 1883, the results were observed and documented. They were similar to the weather changing patterns seen 65 years earlier, though not to the same devastating extent as in 1816.
We now know that every volcanic eruption is different. The 1815 explosion of Mount Tambora, also in the Indonesian Island chain, was extremely powerful — probably the most powerful volcanic eruption in more than 1,300 years. It sent 6,000 feet of the mountain into the stratosphere some 20,000 feet (4 miles) aloft. Along with all that rock, dirt and ash went millions of tons of sulfur dioxide gas. As the gas was expelled skyward and passed up through the atmosphere, it picked up water and the gas turned into molecules of sulfuric acid. It was these acid molecules that circled the Earth’s northern hemisphere and blotted out the sun’s energy, resulting in what became known as the “frozen summer.” Massive crop failures were experienced across all of North America, Northern Europe and Asia.
There is always considerable speculation around what caused the so-called “Burned-Over District” to manifest itself here in the northern Finger Lakes. It could easily have been the intense need for a hopeful message that was delivered here by the movement of the second great awakening revival ministers. The people needed an answer to their pain and suffering.
Because of the bicentennial of the lost summer, there have been a number of new books published on the subject. But if you just want some great educational entertainment to share with your children or grandchildren, try to find a copy of Ontario author Mary Jane Auch’s children’s book “Frozen Summer.” It was published about 10 years ago and is now out of print, but maybe eBay or Bookfinder can locate a copy for you.
It is worth the hunt.
Evans is the Wayne County historian.